As we ventured in our review of last week’s pilot episode “The Western Book of the Dead“, the structure of the second season does indeed come into slightly sharper focus in the second hour “Night Finds You”. This installment echoed some of the weaker points of the previous one, including a whole lot of exposition and a whole lot of angsty brooding. And what’s up with the melancholy bar singer? How about a hosting a karaoke night instead? Or bring in Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes, liven the place up a bit. Velcoro and Semyon could be use some groove. Spoilers follow for the second episode “Night Finds You”.
Aside from all of that, there were a handful of exciting things that occurred in the second hour. Some of these things were pure True Detective. I suppose I never quite realized how much of the first season took place in a moving vehicle, but it felt fitting to see Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro and Rachel McAdams’s Ani Bezzerides exchange trailer-worthy capsule philosophies as they traversed the post-industrial Vinci (His: “My strong suspicion is we get the world we deserve”; Hers: “I don’t distinguish between good and bad habits”). The starting point of their relationship is characterized by mistrust and conscious deception, as both are informed about the other during individual briefings at the start of the episode. Ani learns that Ray is rumored to be a bent cop, while Ray is more or less tasked with seeing that the investigation goes nowhere. The pair use the car ride to “get to know each other”, which in True Detective means testing the other for weak spots, for betrayals, and eventually for a point on which an alliance might be formed.
…at least that’s how it seemed. The final scene of “Night Finds You” possibly throws the True Detective Handbook out the window, leaving ostensible main character Ray with two shotgun blasts in the chest. It’s a brutal, indelible scene, not just because it’s the most well-framed sequence of the season thus far (although it is) but because our expectations are so thoroughly overthrown in those closing moments. Boiling it down to is he dead or not is tempting, and the structure of the rest of the season does hinge largely on the answer to that question — but the sheer unexpectedness of the event transcends the resolution to the cliffhanger. Consider that other HBO series where main characters die regularly, Game of Thrones, and consider the set-up to many of those deaths: a character dreams of the future, dreams of a name for their soon-to-be-born son, reunites with an old family member, enjoys a small moment of happiness. These work in GoT, for the most part, because they gel with the theme of the brevity of power, the transience of life, the sheer indiscriminate strength of death.
But at this point we’re conditioned to expect that if a character finds themselves in a good place in GoT, things are about to take a turn for the worse. Now consider Ray Velcoro’s scenes in “Night Finds You”: he’s assigned to a case and told in a roundabout way to spin the thing in circles; he’s slapped with the prospect of a custody battle by his ex-wife over his young son; he’s casually offered a career path to Chief of the Vinci P.D. by his “business associate” Frank Semyon. These aren’t just teases of things that will never actually come to pass after the unfortunate interference of a guy in a raven mask with a shotgun; Ray sees a vision of the future in each of these stage-setting scenes, and he fights against that future with all his might. “I’ll burn this city to the ground,” he tells his ex-wife about the prospect of living without his son; “I don’t want that” is his blunt response to Semyon’s proposal of a 30K/year career boost. And the Casper murder case itself is one that might easily go in circles — in the pilot episode Ray notes “we shouldn’t be on this [case]” — and yet Ray speaks honestly with Ani about pursuing it to the fullest.
If writer Nic Pizzolatto truly has killed Ray off two episodes in, then the way he’s set up our expectations and subsequently destabilized them would mark the most impressive aspect of the second season so far. Even the short segment of Ray hollering down to the kids playing under the raw sewage pump (“Vaya! Peligro!”) suggests a character that’s here to stay, someone we can get to know through short little windows into mundane interactions, not someone caught in a light-speed character arc that concludes with their heroic death. Living, unmustachioed Ray could still show up in flashbacks, as we’ve already been treated to a brief scene of the day he met Frank Semyon, and his death would heighten the stakes for Ani and Paul Woodrough — especially if the Raven takes one of them down next.
Of course, Ray might have survived. What’s more unlikely: that someone would live through point-blank-shotgun-blast-to-chest, or that Colin Farrell would sign up for True Detective for such a short and deceptive stint? Even if Ray does live, though, he’s certainly out of commission for the time being and likely changed by the ordeal. Structurally, True Detective will probably be focusing more on Ani and Paul in the next episode than on dead/wounded Ray, and in terms of development of those weaker characters that’s a good thing. We’ll have to wait and see.
And the Raven (yes, we’re calling him the Raven): this is one bad dude. Unlike the Yellow King of the first season, this Hollywood-living murderer is a great presence already in the first quarter of the sophomore run. We’ve seen him, even though we don’t know his identity, and we’ve seen how ruthless he is in the unhesitating shooting of Ray Velcoro. And that closet with the webcam setup is telling, too. Vulture’s Margaret Lyons posted a great article after “Western Book” called “What True Detective’s Credits Foreshadow About Season 2“, which calls particular attention to this shot:
Lyons is mistaken, though, in dubbing that little electronic cyborg-eye as a “surveyor’s level” — it’s a webcam. The idea of perception is already tied to the electronic device in the pilot episode as Ani and her father debate whether sister Athena’s “internet theatre” performances are actually porn or not, and in that credits shot the “public eye” is synonymous with Ani’s own eye. If the Raven murdered Casper because of his private sexual endeavors, there might be an element to his plan of exposing that private life that still has yet to be revealed. If so, that might not bode well for Ani, for Paul, or for Ray whether he’s dead or not — all three have secrets, and all three stand to lose a great deal if those secrets are published to the world.